In October 2011, I was lucky enough to visit the set of Jonathan Levine‘s Warm Bodies. The film follows R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who falls in love with the non-zombie Julie (Teresa Palmer) after eating her boyfriend’s brains. Judging by the trailers, it looks like Levine has crafted a sweet, funny rom-zom-com.
In addition to getting zombified on the set, I got the chance to sit down and talk with Hoult. During out conversation, we spoke about eating brains, zombie school, influential zombie movies, playing an unconventional hero, communication without words, and much more. Hit the jump to check out the interview. Warm Bodies opens February 1st.
NICHOLAS HOULT: What happens to him at the beginning of the story is he can’t communicate with anyone, he’s lost the power of speech, he’s trapped. His life’s quite dull and worn down, that feeling of dragging yourself through life. We had a zombie school, funnily enough. Not doing too much, I suppose, is important.
The frames of reference for this movie are Romeo and Juliet and Edward Scissorhands, but it also seems like Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy.
HOULT: Yes. The thing I really liked about the script is it’s about someone trying to retain his humanity. Through killing Julie’s boyfriend and eating his brains he falls for her and then regains that through being with her. That’s the great thing about Theresa: She’s such a lively, bubbly person anyway and that spark she brings to the character.
What’s eating brains like?
HOULT: Eating brains is fun. It’s kind of like a cold, wet sponge they made the brains out of. The idea that Jonathan came up with is that because these brains are memories it’s kind of like being alive again, it’s kind of like a drug to the zombies. The brains is quite a release. There was one day where there was a scene where I crack open Dave Franco’s head to eat his brains. We used a dummy, and I actually pulled some of the dummy’s hair out and it was on the brains so I ate a load of fake brains and the dummy’s hair which wasn’t the most pleasant experience.
In a vampire story the romance is more obvious, there’s something erotic about biting someone’s neck. Eating brains less erotic…
HOULT: You haven’t seen how I eat brains. (laughs)
HOULT: You can hear the voice-over of my character, which is very eloquent. It’s partly the way Jonathan is shooting it as well. You can’t see some of the more violent, gory stuff. You see it from his point of view because it’s something he has to do. The fact that it’s shot beautifully makes it less about killing someone’s boyfriend, which is never a good start.
Have you found it particularly difficult being the protagonist and a member of the living dead?
HOULT: The tricky aspect of it is tracking the getting better aspect of the story. Me and Jonathan tracked the key points when he would develop and become more human. The speech was something we worked on, because people have difficulty understanding me anyway, just the way that I talk, so making it more zombie-like and turning that groan into words was difficult. There’s a lot to think about, but that’s what excited me about the script, that it was unconventional.
What was the most jarring disparity going from Jack the Giant Killer to this?
HOULT: It was odd, it was a quick turnaround. I had a week off and then came here to start zombie school. Because of the 3-D element and the scale of that this is a faster shoot, which is fun because you get more momentum and into the swing of the scenes more. They’re so different.
HOULT: Yeah, that one is a young farm boy who gets taken off on an epic mission and ends up being a hero. With this there’s a lot of room to try things out and have fun. Jonathan’s a great director to let you try things out, “more zombie, less zombie.” All those things. We have fun in that sense, especially when Rob Corddry is around ’cause he’s always adding funny lines. I once played a character who had head trauma so that’s coming in useful, re-learning how to use your tongue and mouth to make words.
Do you have a whole backstory to who your character was prior to becoming a zombie?
HOULT: No, that’s the whole thing, he’s forgotten who he is. He calls himself “R” because he can’t remember the rest of the letters that make up his name.
How does being restrained affect how you play off Theresa and Rob?
HOULT: Trying to communicate without using words but also very very subtle things without moving your face too much that show you’re not a zombie anymore. He’s trying to connect to Julie but he can’t. He’s wants to say all these wonderful things to her but he can’t.
Does his personality shine through in the voiceover?
HOULT: Yeah, you get to see more of his sense of humor and frustration, and perhaps a glimpse of what he was before.
As an actor you’re in a vulnerable place because you’re having to tone down your performance so you’re trusting Jonathan to get it for you.
HOULT: I’ve never really been on a set before where the director told me to tone it down. It’s always been “pump it up.” It makes a nice change. I trust Jonathan from the first time I met him and saw how he adapted the screenplay. It’s one oof the first scripts I sat down and read in one.
HOULT: Yeah, I did.
Do you like reading the source material?
HOULT: Yeah, it’s always useful in underlining notes. This script is fairly different, but there’s little bits to think about during scenes.
Talk about the love story aspect. You want to communicate with her but can only communicate in grunts.
HOULT: That’s a lot of guys. (laughs) I really like her, but… It always goes back to that feeling of wanting to communicate with her. Playing that song is one way to reach out to her.
Is there one song that sums up you?
HOULT: “All Of My Love” by Led Zeppelin. Is that a good choice for now?
When we were zombies just being still and acting braindead is sort of relaxing. When you were doing it did you ever reach some kind of “zombie nirvana” or is there a lot more going on under the surface?
HOULT: Zombie nirvana. (laughs) There is something fascinating because obviously the fact that he’s trying to learn means he’s always watching what’s going on. That’s good fun as well, to be in the middle of the scene but taking in what the other actors are doing. That’s something fun to play cause sometimes you forget what you’re doing and are just taking in what’s around you.
HOULT: Return of the Living Dead was the first one where zombies spoke, “Send more paramedics.” We had a spoof of that one day where I picked up the radio and said, “Send more brains.” The more recent ones like 28 Days Later and Evil Dead. Picking up movement from those films but not completely copying. When zombies first started running they were serious sprinters.
What kind of myth are we busting about what zombies represent and how they are made attractive?
HOULT: Attracting is tricky. I know you asked Rob earlier if zombies get boners. In the short story that was first written there’s a line that said, “My penis fell off two weeks ago.” That’s kind of how I’ve been playing it. Went method on that. With vampires there’s the tension, wheras this there’s more of a sweetness because it’s about reaching out and trying to connect with someone. When we were shooting “A Single Man” that was Colin’s thing, trying to connect with people you don’t normally do in life. At one point we flash back to life before the zombies and you see we’re not that different, we’re kind of shut off from everything. The romance comes from these two people who shouldn’t be together sparking a revolution.
Here’s more from my visit to the set of Warm Bodies:
- Matt Visits the Set of Warm Bodies and Gets Turned into a Zombie
- Director Jonathan Levine Talks about Zombie Movies, What He Learned from 50/50, Horror and Romance, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Teresa Palmer Talks about Her Favorite Zombie Movie, Having a Relationship with a Zombie, the Influence of Romeo and Juliet, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Rob Corddry Talks about Learning Zombie Moves from Cirque du Soleil, His Love of Zombie Movies, Children’s Hospital, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Producer Bruna Papandrea Talks Working with Director Jonathan Levine, Aiming for a PG-13 Rating, Zombie Sex, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies